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September, 2020

You and Your School: Starting the Year Off Right

2020-09-16

Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #4: The Back to School Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.

Sending your child with Down syndrome to school can bring up scary thoughts: Will they make friends? How will they manage the work? What if they need help? But your family need not go it alone; you have your child’s teacher and the school support staff as your greatest allies. The key is to build a rapport with school educators early – even before September – and to maintain these relationships throughout the school year.

Set up an Introductory Meeting

If this is your child’s first time at school, ask the principal to set up a meeting in late August with your child’s teacher or have a community facilitator (who may have supported your child in a daycare setting) help organize this meeting. The purpose of an early gathering is to give your child a chance to see where they will be going and meet the teacher as well as the support staff who will be working with your child. Ideally, this meeting should happen every year before school starts, but if it doesn’t, plan for as early in the school year as possible. The key is that you, as the parent, are given the opportunity to discuss your child’s strengths, challenges and any safety concerns.

Create an 'About Me'

When your child is new to a school, a useful strategy that helps guide the introductory meeting is to create an 'About Me.' This document, a few pages in length, includes contact information, the child’s educational and personal strengths and challenges (lead with strengths), their likes/dislikes, any medical history or information staff should know that may impact learning and, perhaps most important, any safety concerns you may have, such as: flight risks, toileting needs, feeding concerns, and difficulty with executive control/decision-making that may lead to other dangers. While educational goals are certainly important and should never be discounted – your child has a legal right to receive the support they need to be able to learn alongside their peers – it is often their safety needs that will guarantee the support of another adult, and so safety needs must be stressed.

Be sure to also include an adorable photo in your ‘About Me.’ Together, all these pieces help to paint your child as the whole, lovely person they are, and your child’s teacher will greatly appreciate the effort you have put into helping them get to know their future student better. Remember: you know your child best and you are your child’s expert. Feel free to brag!

Offer Resources

During the meeting, after the ‘About Me,’ ask the teacher (as politely as possible), “Have you ever taught a student with Down syndrome before?” Their answer helps you to internally gauge their level of knowledge about Down syndrome and their experience working with children with disabilities. As a parent, this information helps you to be able to support the teacher as well as possible. Contrary to what you might expect, educators are taught very little about how to meet the needs of children with disabilities in teacher’s college. Share the link to the wonderful Educator’s Package, available in English and French through the Canadian Down Syndrome Society. You can also provide the handy Quick Guide to Down Syndrome for Parents, which you’ll find at the end of this article, as a resource that can be given to the other parents in the class.

If a teacher has never taught a student with Down syndrome before – and even if they have – offering resources and being a sounding board for their questions about your child can be helpful and reassuring. Talking about Down syndrome provides an excellent opportunity to dispel any stereotypes that may come up, and to present your child as an individual with their own distinct personality.

Show Your Involvement

In discussing Down syndrome, take a moment to share your family’s involvement in the Down syndrome community. If you’re a volunteer with your local association, or involved with CDSS or DSRF, this is a good time to mention that involvement. Do you volunteer on a board or committee? Perhaps you participate in a Go21 fundraiser, Run Up for Down Syndrome, or other Down syndrome related event? This is all worth mentioning because perhaps your teacher or school would like to support you in your efforts in some way.

Mention World Down Syndrome Day (3/21) and Canada’s Down Syndrome Week (November 1–7) and see if your child’s class or school might be interested in celebrating. Introducing these events is not only an invitation to your child’s educator to join you in your advocacy work, but also sets the tone that you are your child’s advocate with high expectations. When parents show they are involved – in whatever form that may take – and clearly love their child, this elicits strong feelings from the teacher to act the same way. Teachers are naturally caring individuals, and it helps to build a bridge when you show that you are too.

Volunteer

Would you be willing to come in to read a book or talk to your child’s class or school about Down syndrome? The intro meeting is a great time to bring this up. If you are comfortable talking about Down syndrome, or know someone in the Down syndrome community who would be, this is an excellent resource for your child’s class and/or school that requires little effort on the teacher’s part and helps educate other students and staff about Down syndrome – win/win.

Communicate Regularly

Establish a method of communication that works for you and your child’s teacher from the start. Some families choose a daily communication book, and this may be something your child’s educational assistant (EA) – or equivalent in your area – may complete. There are ready-made templates available online if your school doesn’t already have something in place. Find what will work for you and your child’s teacher. You don’t want to be creating a make-work project; the goal is for the exchange, whether daily or as needed, to be meaningful and informative.

In addition to written communication, request regular in-person meetings and suggest a schedule, such as two weeks after the initial meeting followed by a monthly check-in. Setting a regular meeting time (e.g. the 1st Monday of the month) is a reasonable request, keeping in mind these meetings are meant to be short updates that allow the teacher and parent to share successes, ask questions and bring up any concerns. These meetings can happen in the fifteen minutes before the bell rings as you drop the kids off at school. They are not meant to be lengthy or time consuming – that’s a different type of meeting that should be scheduled as needed. A key point when communicating with your child’s teacher and educational team is to focus on the positives: how can a challenge be reframed as an opportunity for growth and learning?

Stay in Touch

Throughout the school year, keep the teacher updated on your child’s home life as well. If you go apple picking in the fall, for example, send in an apple for your child’s educators. Get involved with your child’s class to the extent you can. Does the teacher need a parent volunteer? As your child’s advocate, it’s important to monitor not just what the teacher says is happening, but to see with your own eyes how your child’s day actually unfolds, especially if your child is not yet able or interested in telling you. Volunteering in your child’s class, even one or two times, puts you in the middle of the action and can help clear up any questions you may have or serve as a point of conversation for later.

Set Clear Expectations

Be clear about your expectations for your child from the start of the year. Is your goal for your child to complete exams alongside their high school peers? Do you want your child to learn to read this year? Be realistic and be specific. Suggest ways you will help support these goals at home: i.e. we will help our child create study sheets or we will read three books together every night. Don’t expect the teacher to do it all.

Show Gratitude

Though it may seem obvious, remember to be grateful to your child’s teacher for their time and efforts. Celebrate special occasions with them, write a thank you note to acknowledge an extra effort made on your child’s behalf, and send in small tokens of gratitude and appreciation throughout the year, such as a child’s drawing or a fresh flower picked from your garden. These small gestures can go a long way. The more you put into building a positive relationship with the teaching staff, the more they will pour into your son or daughter.

Additional Resources:

Listen to Adelle discuss this topic further on The LowDOWN: A Down Syndrome Podcast 
A Quick Guide to Down Syndrome for Parents

Back to School in the Time of COVID-19

2020-09-04

Reprinted from 3.21: Canada's Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #4: The Back to School Issue). Click here to download the full magazine.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to adjust to a highly unusual new normal where many of our everyday routines have shifted into survival mode. While many of us are equipped with tools and strategies to deal with these changes it is a well-known fact that individuals with Down syndrome can find such transitions very challenging. The loss of routine and structure can be a source of anxiety and fear, often resulting in challenging behaviors.

The return to school transition can be a stressful situation at the best of times, and with new COVID-19 safety guidelines in place, school is going to look very different come fall of 2020. One of the best ways to help with this transition is to prepare your child with Down syndrome for what is going to happen. Although there will be some aspects of the school routine that will remain the same, many changes will be in place, and providing your child with the opportunity to get used to these changes will help with the transition in September. Keep in mind that it is very difficult for individuals with Down syndrome to mentally picture or anticipate what a future event might look like, so frontloading them with information can help ease their anxieties and allow them to have more successful outcomes.

Here are a few ways that you can help with this transition:

School Visit

If possible, ask your child’s principal and teachers to schedule a visit to the school before it officially reopens. This way your child can familiarise themselves with their environment again, see their teacher and get used to the layout of the school. They may feel reassured to know that some things have not changed. If an in-person visit is not feasible, you can arrange a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) with the principal or teacher to discuss changes in the school environment and how you can best prepare your child. If this is also not practical, you can ask the teacher to take some photos or videos of key places in the school and create a visual tour to share with your child on a frequent basis. Individuals with Down syndrome are strong visual learners, so incorporate pictures and videos where you can.

Social Stories

Another way to prepare your child for a return to school is through the use of social stories – individualized short stories that are used to teach expectations around new social situations that your child may find stressful or confusing. You can create a story using pictures from your child’s school to pre-teach them the new school routine and help them adjust to new rules or expectations. The Down Syndrome Resource Foundation has a sample social story that can be used as a template to customize one for your child. Click here to download a copy. Once you have created a social story that is tailored to your child’s circumstances, read it with them often and talk about the return to school in a positive tone, pointing out all the good things that will await your child despite the changes brought on because of COVID.

Start At Home

For kids with Down syndrome, it is likely to take longer to adjust to the new social distancing rules in school. If possible, rather than waiting for the return to school to teach these new rules, you can start by practising at home. Contact your child’s school to get a list of the new protective measures that will be in place. Teachers can take photos of places in the school where new measures have been implemented, such as one-way hallways and new classroom layouts. Help them practice handwashing, cleaning surfaces and even getting them more comfortable wearing a mask. For resources on mask adherence and visuals for hand washing, please click here.

Advocacy and Education

It is also important to advocate for your child’s learning needs. Many school officials may be unaware of the fact that children with Down syndrome benefit greatly from the structured learning environment of school and that video instruction is a challenge for them, creating significant demands on executive functioning skills such as attention, planning and memory. In addition, the lack of peer interaction can have an adverse effect on the development of their social-emotional skills. Many children rely on school-based networks for friendship and may not have access to these connections elsewhere, especially if they are not in an inclusive classroom setting. 

You may find that despite all these advanced preparations your child may still refuse to go back to school. This can be due to a variety of reasons including fear of the unknown, anxiety surrounding new classmates or teachers, and a general difficulty with adjusting to a new routine. Some strategies to help your child work through this reluctance can include:

1. Provide your child with the opportunity to communicate their fears. Using visual supports and supported communication techniques can be helpful. Your child’s speech language pathologist can provide some guidance on this goal as well.

2. Talk to your child’s teacher and support staff regarding their refusal to return to school. If everyone is aware and on the same page it can make it easier to collaborate on strategies.

3. Create a social story about anxiety and return to school and read the book together as part of your child’s evening routine. You can then help them deal with any worries by suggesting how to cope with them in the future.

4. Provide reward and praise for any progress or attempt made to complete school-related tasks such as packing their backpack, making their lunch, putting on their school clothes, or walking to their school.

5. Help your child stick to a routine at home and make learning playful by incorporating it into everyday activities like cooking, family reading time, or while playing games.

6. Help your child identify strategies to regulate, reduce and monitor emotions, and reduce stress. Deep breathing and mindfulness skills can be a great way for children to manage their anxiety independently. You can collaborate on this goal with your child’s speech language pathologist or occupational therapist. 

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that transitions are a challenge for individuals with Down syndrome, and the COVID-19 pandemic has just further complicated the process. However, with the appropriate preparation and a continued collaborative effort, students with Down syndrome can successfully return to school and resume their learning. Here’s to a fun and fruitful school year!

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